Traveling to Cuba as an American

Traveling to Cuba as an American
 
With two small kids at home, sometimes getting away for a much needed vacation with just my hubs can be a logistical nightmare so we tend to  try to find unique and fun places that we can go to for 2-3 nights.  Well Cuba just so happened to have fit that bill when we realized Southwest, hello frequent flier miles, flew there and it was a short flight.  My sister went down there and came back ranting and raving about how amazing it was so we booked that day.

Flight

We booked Southwest out of Nashville and then had a layover in Ft Lauderdale before landing in Havana. We were prompted through Southwest to purchase Visa online for $50, but we could have also just bought our Visa at the airport in Ft Lauderdale at the gate for same price. And obviously you also need your Passport. Now heads up, according to US Embassy in Cuba there are 12 reasons you as an American can travel to Cuba, and tourism isn’t one of them. My husband and I chose journalistic activity since we run this blog.   Also included in your plane ticket is your medical insurance while traveling in Cuba, but I would try your hardest not to utilize this service. Take advantage of the wifi on the plane because its the last chance of wifi until you are back on that plane headed home.

Arriving In Cuba

Once you arrive in Cuba your entrance Visa is taken along with a picture. Don’t smile, they don’t like that.  There are nurses stationed at baggage claim to make sure that you have filled out the simple medical form and have health insurance. Depending on where you stay and who your hosts are you should be able to arrange transportation from airport to the hotel. We had arranged transportation through our host but there was mix up so they never arrived. She had previously told us it would be $20-$25 CUC.  We were approached by a yellow cab and he charged us $40. But non the less we made it. Downtown Havana is around 35 minutes away from the airport.

Leaving Havana

When leaving, we had to have our exit visa and have our picture compared to the picture they took when we entered the country. Make sure you don’t lose your exit visa! They’ll take this from you when you leave. Southwest takes off from terminal 2 so make sure you get to the right terminal because they are not walking distance.

Money

The current exchange rate is around 1 USD = .93 CUC (6/12/17). We exchanged  USD to EUR in the states and then once we got to airport, cabby showed up where to exchange at the airport, we exchanged EUR to CUC. We also had USD and they exchanged that as well. You can have your host help you exchange with locals for a better rate as well.  Also, to avoid the exchange rate all together, you could withdraw Euros from your bank before your trip then change to CUC in Cuba. Euro is 1 to 1 with the CUC. (and right now 1 Euro = $1.12 so I would def recommend this 6/12/17)

You need to have all of your cash before you arrive because they do not take US credit/debit cards anywhere in Cuba. This was actually one of the biggest problems I had, well besides Wifi. I was constantly checking with hubs to make sure we had enough money. A credit-less society is terrifying to me.  Personally we brought $700 for 3 nights and left with not a CUC to our name. But we also spent the remaining in the duty free shop at the airport. I’ve also heard  $100 USD per person per day should be more than enough, especially if you’ve booked your accommodations ahead of time online on your card.
When you change money back in the Havana airport when leaving, I would just look for a US person in the exchange line and ask if they want to exchange with you on a 1:1. This is a good deal for both of you because they get the 1:1 rate and you avoid the 10% penalty they change when changing back. Or just buy all the rum and cigars you can carry.
Just an FYI and to keep your eyes open there are 2 currencies in Cuba. Locals use Cuban Pesos and vistors use CUC. This is really a lot less confusing than it seems. Just make sure someone doesn’t give you your change in pesos.
Tipping is not common, but most visitors tip a little. At some restaurants they indicate that 10% servicio is included.

Language

Almost everyone I met in Havana spoke a little English, so it’s very easy to get around without Spanish.

Getting Around Cuba

Before leaving make sure you download a map.  We chose the Galileo Pro app with Cuba Map because it came recommended by several people.  This enables you to see your location on the map while in airplane mode (which is how you will stay your whole trip). I would also recommend you go through and input any places you want to see as well as your hotel or Airbnb so you can always get home.  Its based off other peoples input so there are a lot of places listed already.
We ended up waking up early to walk around one morning and met up with a man and his son who drove an old American car. It was beautiful. They are parked outside the big hotels and offer tours. Instead we had him take us to beach, dinner, a tour, and then the airport. We liked them so we just asked them to take us everywhere we ended up wanting to go. It
We also took a Bici Taxi. Which is a bicyclist drawn carriage. We took one of these to dinner and then grabbed one on the way home and they charged two completely different rates. So ask before getting on how much it will cost.
 

WiFi

It doesn’t exist. Just kidding kinda. We waited in line for close to an hour for a wifi card. We paid 3 CUC for an hour and then walked down to one of the Internet cafes, El Floridita.  Unfortunately we were never able to log in on either of our phones. So no wifi for us.  Phone calls worked well and we didn’t have a problem calling out. It was expensive at around $3 a minute but totally worth it to hear my girls voices.

Accommodations

We booked our accommodations with Airbnb about a month before leaving. Depending on what you are looking for, I would recommend booking in Old Havana so you’re walking distance from most things. We were in the city center and could have walked everywhere on our list of places to see. Location was a big factor for me as well as I needed pretty and this Airbnb screamed French Provenical to me, these were the pictures that sold us online. Not to mention it was $55 a night.
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Yes those are two twin beds. But when its that hot and air conditioner isn’t like what we have here, we didn’t mind it.
The showers and toilets are really low pressure, and the  shower water was a little chilly. Another thing I wasn’t aware of when traveling there was that you can not flush toilet paper. Yes stop and think about that for a minute. Do not use the water for brushing teeth or drinking either.
Seeing we were only going to be gone a couple nights, no need to bring a lot of toiletries. But if you forget something its not easy to find.  Stock up on hand sanitizer and toilet paper bc soap and paper isn’t readily available when out and about.
This Airbnb was on the third floor which provided amazing scenery and we had a gorgeous patio that wrapped around the corner building having views in every direction. But the hike to get to the top floor was up a skinny stairwell that went in circles. So not good for small children or people that can climb stairs well.  There were 3 key locks to get into our room which was nice in terms of security. Our room also contained a small kitchenette which we never used but nice to have.

What we did while there

SANTA MARÍA DEL MAR BEACH

This was the closest beach to Old Havana at around 25 minutes. We didn’t want to waste a ton of time in the car driving since our trip was short. So we met our cabby friends one morning around 8am (the city is asleep still at this point) and they took us out there for 50cuc and waited on us until we were ready to come back. Now this beach is known for its beach parties. And when we got out there at 9am, it was a disaster. Trash as far as you can see. We found a clean spot, laid down our blanket and made the best of it. Soon there after a tractor came through picking up trash. Then by 10am they had laid down the beach chairs and umbrellas and you would have had no idea they mess that was there hours earlier.  So we grabbed a chair and umbrella for 2cuc each. Yes that isn’t a typo. And had a waiter bring us drinks and food for the rest of the day.  Now I forgot sunscreen assuming it would be easy to find. It wasn’t. Thankfully we had the umbrella. The water was gorgeous. Not a lot of waves and very clear. By noon it was packed and lively.

This came highly recommended from our cabby. Now come to find out these restaurants incentivize these drivers to bring tourist so was it the best place probably not but very fun.  Little pricey at 60cuc a person but that included 3 drinks, several course meal, and dinner show by the world renowned, Buena Vista Social Club. I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of them, but all the other guests came from all over the world to see them. So pretty big deal. We were sat for dinner around 8pm, needless to say we had a Cuban coffee after dinner to make it until the end.
O’Reily’s on Amagura – Great little hipster coffee shop in the middle of old Havana.
El Floridita – Hemmingway’s daiquiri bar – super touristy!  This is where the Daiquiri was INVENTED. This was the most expensive drink we had at 7CUC.
El Del Frente- 303 OReilly. Was my favorite and if we had found this place one day one we would have been there every night. Look for street address, go upstairs and then keep going to roof top for more cool vibes. Best mojito ever was served here.
A 2 hour Tour of the City
We hopped in our cabbies purple convertible and they drove us to all the different locations you would want to see in Cuba. We were allowed to get out and take pictures if we wanted to .

This was another restaurant that was suggested from our cabby.  He ranted and raved about how amazing it was and how when Beyonce ate there and they shut it down for her. It’s near the harbor and in a pretty community. The restaurant itself was very pretty and gardens were nice. The food was one of the priciest in Cuba we had at around $20 cuc. For the money I didn’t think food was all that great. But had a great atmosphere.

People

This was my most favorite part of the whole trip.  Getting to talk to them and see what their lives were like. We spent a lot of time walking up and down the streets and watching people.  What I noticed most was the family unit. Lots of moms, dads, and children together walking around. Also lots of school kids in their matching outfits.  So funny even they stare at their phones endlessly. Its a global epidemic. Here are some pictures of the people doing their thing.

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So would I go back? Probably not. Traveling is one of those life experiences that teaches you so much about yourself.  And from this trip I have learned Im not big into traveling to 3rd world countries for vacation.  It was hot too. Man was it hot. And there was no way to cool off except at the beach. Probably should have done that more than one day.  I am so very excited I was able to see it but we could have probably done everything we wanted to do in 2 nights. in fact we tried to leave early but due to our failed wifi it didn’t happen. But on our last night we found my favorite restaurant.

Things to Remember

Bring toilet paper. But know you can’t flush it. Its hot and AC is not popular there. Don’t drink the water. Wear comfortable shoes. If you don’t like seeing stray dogs everywhere, stay home. Food wasn’t excellent but it sure was cheap.  The city is asleep until 10am at the earliest. Coffees are tiny. Mojitos are plentiful. Half your money will go to people needing it more than you. They want your clothes too when you are leaving.  Buy the Lonely Planet and download a Map.  Time literally stops here. Longest days ever. Enjoy yourself, many people haven’t been able to be in your position in a long time.

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